Ask An Adult: What's The Science Behind A Comedown?
The Debrief: Ever spent a sunny Sunday curled up in a darkened room? This might be for you...
Ever spent a sunny Sunday curled up in a ball in a dark room? Maybe you’ve found yourself slumped over your desk on a Monday morning, reminiscing about all your terrible break-ups? Well, you’re not alone: after the show, it’s the after-party, and after the party, it’s the horrendous comedown.
A report, released last month, revealed more Brits aged 15-34 used coke over a 12-month period than anywhere else in Europe. Plus, nearly a tenth of us have tried ecstasy in our lifetime. So, there’s a chance you’ve experienced the sweaty emptiness of day spent slowly sipping the same glass of water and wishing your mates were more sympathetic.
Despite this, there’s not been much research into comedowns, and the research that does exist is blurry. Each comedown is unique in its own special way thanks to (deep breath): what drugs you take, what they’re cut with, whether you mix them, how much you take, how long a period of time you take them over, whether you’re dancing or staying still, and your own genetics.
I asked three experts to explain the science behind comedowns, focusing specifically on the after-effects of cocaine and MDMA/ecstasy.
What is a comedown?
Your comedown kicks in when the high from whatever drug you’re taking starts to fade. It’s due to a combination of three things: chemical imbalance, toxins and exhaustion. ‘The buzz is masking the reality of what’s happening to your body,’ says Rick Bradley a substance use specialist from charity Addaction. ‘Once the high goes, you’ll feel your body is struggling.’
Let’s flashback to that Don’t Do Drugs video you watched in Year 10. It probably showed an extremely ’90s girl raving to acid house, before cutting to a cartoon of the neurons in her brain sending signals to each other. These signals include feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine is the ‘reward’ that’s released to reinforce positive behaviours such as exercise and eating. Serotonin is responsible for maintaining mood balance. Usually, they’re released briefly and then reabsorbed after the moment passes.
‘It’s this that changes your mood from euphoric to downbeat. Both cocaine and MDMA affect the re-uptake of dopamine and serotonin, as well as norepinephrine (noradrenaline), although the way that each neurotransmitter is affected will vary from drug to drug.
‘Once the drugs wear off there’s a depletion in the amount of these chemicals in the blood,’ says Amanda Feilding, director of drug policy research organisation The Beckley Foundation. It’s this that makes you go from super happy to feeling down in the dumps.
Exhaustion and dehydration
Chemical changes aren’t the only component of your comedown. Some of it will be down to extreme tiredness caused by sleep deprivation and exercising for much longer than you normally would. Plus, you’ll be dehydrated, thanks to your increased heart rate, especially if you’ve been drinking alcohol, and you’ll lack energy from not eating enough.
Rick from Addaction says: ‘Your comedown’s likely to be better if you just sit at home doing MDMA rather than dancing very energetically for five or six hours.’
If you’ve ever had diarrhoea after taking drugs, it’s probably because your body has responded to them or whatever they’ve been cut with as a toxin. Toxins are chemicals your body sees as poisons, and which your liver and kidneys have to work hard to remove.
‘Some people react badly to foreign substances,’ says Rick. ‘Regular drug users can find that it happens out of the blue.’
He explains that people have reported vomiting as a result of their body rejecting very pure MDMA. Although Professor David Nutt, who chairs the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, adds, that throwing up isn’t normal.
‘I’d change your dealer if that happens,’ he says.
Professor Nutt says your genetic make-up can determine whether or not you get a comedown. ‘People’s guts absorb differently and we all have different metabolisms,’ he says.
Plus, he tells me that a recent study showed if you have a short version of a specific serotonin transporter gene, you’re much more likely to be susceptible to both the highs and lows of MDMA than if you have a long version. (In fact, you can pay around £250 to get this tested.)
He adds that young women are more likely to be affected by MDMA than by men. While the reasons for the gender difference are unclear, a 2008 Australian study suggested that it’s because oestrogen increases sensitivity to the drug.
How long do comedowns last?
‘Usually the steeper the up, the steeper the down,’ says Rick, explaining that coke’s rapid, intense high will mean your comedown will be rapid and intense, while MDMA’s slower boost will result in a slower, less intense comedown.
The chemical impact of the drug – the emotional ‘down’ – will last as long as the substance is in your blood (usually a day or two after your Big Night Out), but the exhaustion symptoms could last longer.
You might have heard of people smoking weed or taking valium to help them get to sleep when they’re coming down but Rick from Addaction says mixing any drugs can make the experience much more risky. Valium, for example, slows down your central nervous system and can place people at risk of overdose, especially if they have also been drinking alcohol. He says: ‘Mixing substances generally makes it harder to manage your night out. If someone decides to take something it is best just to accept that a comedown can be part of the experience. Taking more substances on board is just not good for your body’. Plus, while you might be tempted to re-dose up on the same drug you’ve been taking all night to put off the comedown, it’s an equally bad idea. Not only is it likely to result in a worse comedown, it can also lead some people to develop dependency issues.
Tips and tricks
Drug forums suggest that taking supplements like 5-HTP can lessen the impact of comedowns by preventing damage caused from depletion of neurotransmitters. Prof. Nutt says ‘those drugs work on neurotransmitters, so it could be true’ but explains there’s been no formal research. Instead, Rick from Addaction says: 'the best way to see a comedown through is by allowing your body time for rest and recuperation; get some natural sleep, eat healthy foods such as bananas and nuts which can help replenish serotonin, and drink lots of water, fruit juice or isotonic drinks which can help sort out your salt levels.’
Ultimately, the safest way to avoid a comedown is not to take any drugs at all (or to only take a small dose), but if you have been hitting things hard, Rick says: ‘the key thing is to allow your body to rest, and accept that it’s part of the experience.’ I can vouch for Calippos.
Also, massive disclaimer: unlawful possession of Class A drugs is illegal in the UK. If you’re at all unsure about what you’re taking or what the side effects will be, don’t do it kids. For more information on drug addiction, visit Aadaction.
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Picture: Jake Kenny
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